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June 08, 2009
Matrimony Spring closed...

Drink the water.

It is something I have always believed about places. You go there, you drink. Turn on the tap and fill a glass, even if it smells of chlorine. If it is a waterhole with plump bighorn droppings at the bottom, or has a warm green film across the surface, you drink. You kiss the wet stone at a seep, you touch river water to your lips. It puts a place inside of you. It is a greeting.

Once, foolishly, I drank from a spring in a cow pasture (out of the skull of a coyote that had died there). The act seemed auspicious at the time, and of course I became violently ill, plagued for weeks by belches that tasted like a gullet of rotten eggs. But god damnit, I drank.

One of my drinking places has been closed. The old pipe at Matrimony Spring along the river road outside of Moab has had an extension pipe welded onto it, directing the water into a culvert that goes to the Colorado River. The water was deemed contaminated by two tests for coliform bacteria, not enough to pose an immediate health risk but enough to suggest that dubious agents are entering the water from somewhere upstream in the massive bedrock. The decision fell on Jim Adamson, Environmental Health Scientist for the Southeast Utah District Health Department, who has kept this well-used spring "unofficially open" for the last 20 years. It has long been a popular filling station where people line up with jugs and bottles, and its history extends back into local mythology. Now you can go over to Lion's Park and fill up with city water instead.

I used to stop frequently at Matrimony Spring, and when it became too crowded over the past decade I just went a little deeper to lick water off of weeping walls back inside surrounding canyons. My hiatus does not change my reaction to the closure, however. This is one of the water sites on my internal map, one of the important places. Finding out it closed felt like a stomach punch, and my first reaction was that I should take a hacksaw to it in the middle of the night and let water spatter against the ground once more.

A friend suggested that if we're going to close the spring, there needs to be an equal and opposite reaction. He said, "Shut off air conditioning and pool filters in Phoenix." I asked him how long these sanctions should go on. "First couple hundred deaths," he said.

Closing a spring is not something to be taken lightly. Springs each have their own personalities and histories. Those on the south side of the Grand Canyon tend to be hard and spiced with salts, while North Rim waters flow more freshly and clean. On a cliff behind my house in western Colorado, water leaks from a crack until June when it goes dry for another year. I know of one small seep in the back of a cliff dwelling in the Sierra Madre Occidental where buds of water fall from a bedrock roof into a clear pool formed by a handmade adobe basin. Some springs are thought to be inhabited by djinn, sprites, deities of creation and fertility; Tlaloc, Avanyu. There are those you flick coins into, and those used for baptism.

Even the water itself is different at each location. Some of the springs in the Galiuro Mountains in southeast Arizona radio-carbon date to 15,000 years old, water stored within the mountains since the last ice age. All these waters emerge with their own stories, isotopes of radioactive fallout or the gritty iron of mineral belts.

On top of that, we lay down our own human stories. Newlyweds used to scratch their names in the rock surrounding Matrimony Spring (considered to be graffiti by the BLM, the names were apparently sandblasted off in the 1970s). If by nothing else than memory, this favorite spring is marked by all those who stopped to fill up, lines of shameless hippies and lycra bikers, grubby wilderness junkies, thirsty high-schoolers, early ranchers, and long-lost nomads pulling over in the middle of the night for a taste of home.

I have a map of water sites in my head: reflective tinajas hidden in the crags of Cabeza Prieta, and countless springs raining through maidenhair ferns on the Colorado Plateau. I recall scrambling below a cliff dwelling in Arizona where I found a spring flowing through a clay hole. I peered inside through muddy roots where I saw a painted Hopi paho, a prayer stick with small feathers strung off the top. The spring was a marker of ancestral territory, a key location on someone's map.

These sites are important places. They are where water emerges onto the face of the earth, creation stories in themselves. Matrimony Spring is one.

My next reaction to the closure came more slowly: yank that old pipe and the springbox out of the wall and let Matrimony Spring behave like all the others, burbling out of naked rock, owned by no one. Let monkey flowers and maidenhairs return. Forget your jugs and bottles. Use your mouth. Press your lips against the rock and drink.


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